San Diego Schools in Worse Shape Than Before Prop. Z

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Several Years and $1 Billion Later, San Diego Schools Are Actually in Worse Shape

After a tax hike, two ballot propositions and $1 billion in spending, San Diego’s city schools are in worse condition today than they were eight years ago, according to new data.

After a tax hike, two ballot propositions and $1 billion in spending, San Diego’s city schools are in worse condition today than they were eight years ago, according to new data the district handed over to its Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee.

The report shows the agency’s Facility Condition Index is significantly worse than it was in 2012, when Proposition Z was passed. And even worse than it was in 2008, when voters approved Proposition S.

Proposition Z was a property tax hike officially called the San Diego Neighborhood Schools Classroom Safety and Repair Measure. It had a main objective of “repairing deteriorating 60-year-old classrooms, libraries, wiring, plumbing, bathrooms and leaky roofs,” according to the ballot language voters saw.

Proposition S was an extension of a previous tax hike. Combined, they were worth $4.9 billion.

Now, after the district has spent $1 billion, buildings are in worse shape than they were in 2008.

The index, or FCI, is a standard industry measurement calculated by dividing the total cost of facility replacement, repair and renovation needs by the replacement value – determined by multiplying the district’s total square footage by the current cost for new construction per square foot. The amount to totally repair San Diego Unified’s buildings is $1.25 billion. To replace them entirely comes in at $5.5 billion, the latest figures estimate.

An index below 5 percent is good. Six to 10 percent is fair. Above 10 percent is poor.

San Diego Unified’s average FCI presently stands at 22.7 percent, up from around 18 percent when Proposition Z was passed in 2012, and 15 percent when Proposition S was passed in 2008, the new data shows.

How could they spend $1 billion and school buildings still end up worse off?

The answer lies in a combination of factors. First, the district claims the original data used to pitch the bonds was understated, creating an imperfect benchmark by which to measure the progress officials say has indeed been made. But the district hasn’t yet produced any data to back that claim.

The district also said it’s misleading to compare old data points to new ones, but the district itself does so in its own reports.

The same consultant, AECOM, produced each of the facility assessments, but district officials are more confident in the latest figures. In lieu of new “old” figures, here’s a look at what the existing data has shown and what we know.

San Diego Unified has spent large swaths of bond money on things like wireless Internet access and iPads, which, while valuable, do nothing to improve crumbling school buildings and leaky roofs. Nor do other projects prioritized early in the district’s bond program, like new stadiums, improve the FCI.

The poor condition of the district’s schools has reached new heights not seen since before another school bond measure, Proposition MM, passed in 1998. Prop. MM brought $1.51 billion in taxpayer-funded improvements to the district and reduced the FCI from 22 percent to 15 percent – although the district’s new flawed-data claim throws that statistic into question.

Old buildings also get older with time, and they require maintenance to ensure they don’t fall into disrepair. Buildings are aging each day, so district officials are racing against the clock to make facilities better before they get worse. Inflation can also increase costs and negatively affect the index.

On the upside, there is still $3.9 billion left to be spent from Proposition S and Z. (A closer look at the next $800 million in projects can be seen here.) But decisions and project commitments early on have a huge impact and set the tone for the bond program, a lesson the district learned from Prop. MM.

“From the beginning, focus on the goal of keeping our promises to the voters and the schools,” a pre-Prop. S ad hoc bond task force presentation listed tops among its MM lessons.

Improving the overall condition of school facilities was a major promise of both Prop. S and Z.

Prop. S progress was stymied in large part by the economic crisis, which caused home values to plummet and prevented the district from issuing the $2.1 billion in property-backed debt as quickly as planned.

By 2010, dreams of getting the average condition of district schools into the 5 to 7 percent FCI zone anytime soon were lost and pushed back to the year 2026.

Voters were told in 2012 Prop. Z would offer a new $2.8 billion revenue stream to deliver on those pledges and improve the district’s schools sooner. In the run-up to the election, district officials projected Prop. Z money would get the FCI to drop to about 17 percent by now. The index would hit the 5 percent “good” target by 2023, a district memo shows.

San Diego Unified's July 2012 FCI Projections

But that was 2012.

Now, projections show average facility conditions will improve to just 12 percent by 2024, then level off in the still-poor zone before beginning to climb again unless new state or local revenue is obtained.

Translation: A new local bond measure could be brought before voters in the next four to eight years to – once again – fix San Diego’s still-broken schools.

2015 San Diego Unified FCI Projections

District spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter said it is too soon to say whether the district anticipates putting another bond before voters in the next few years, but nothing is currently in the works. She also said the district is hoping a state facility bond will go on the ballot this year and provide matching dollars to boost the funds available for construction.

Reed-Porter objected to any notion the voters were misled by previous school repair and safety bond campaigns, writing in an email, “No, if anything, our work has proved that the safety and repair needs that existed in 2008 were slightly underestimated.”

“During the course of renovating our school buildings, facilities staff, architects and engineers encountered and assessed more wear and deterioration than had originally been assessed,” Reed-Porter wrote.

The district has yet to produce new data points for years past to make this case.

Those 2012 estimations the district now says were off cost $1.1 million, according to district records. It’s unclear what the 2008 estimates cost.

A delay in a bond sale meant the district could complete only $79 million out of the $123 million in repair and replacement work planned for 2015, officials added, and the new push for air conditioning has not yet been factored into the new projections and will help.

So will more whole-site modernization projects coming up, which can rebuild schools from top to bottom and inside and out, said Reed-Porter, speaking on behalf of facilities and bond program chief Lee Dulgeroff.

Andy Berg, chair of San Diego Unified’s independent citizen’s bond oversight committee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Bond oversight committee member Bill Ponder said he doesn’t recall ever hearing the old data was wrong, even during recent FCI discussions with district staff. He found the data unsettling.

“It is troubling. It should be troubling for most folks. They are going to spend all that money, the $5 billion, and then they are going to come back to the taxpayers and say, ‘Well, we couldn’t get the FCI down,’” said Ponder, who’s been on the committee since 2012.

“Not all the projects in the voter guide are going to get done,” Ponder said. Project priorities matter because, “That comes off the top. That money is gone.”

Ponder sees the district’s failure to adequately pitch in for maintenance as a major shortcoming, and blaming the economic crisis doesn’t cut it, he said. “That’s 2008. It’s 2016.”

He acknowledges the district’s ongoing budget deficit is a reality, but said, “that goes to an even greater problem. Why hasn’t the superintendent and the board been able to fix that problem so that they can put money into fixing the facilities?”

“There have been isolated complaints and people have complained and sued, but there hasn’t been a groundswell of people asking, ‘What is going on with this bond? And why is that index heading in the wrong direction?’” Ponder said.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which opposed Prop. Z, is also concerned.

“San Diego Unified promised voters in two successive bond measure campaigns that the extra taxes they’re paying would improve the condition of the district’s badly deteriorating facilities. It’s clear that they’ve failed to deliver on that promise,” said CEO Haney Hong in a statement. “Should the district put another funding measure on the ballot, we’ll work to inform voters of the outcomes from past funding, and we’ll oppose efforts to seek additional dollars unless and until past commitments have been met.”

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